The Non-Philosopher's Guide to

Can Bad Men Make Good Brains do Bad Things?

(or Why does anyone think this is funny?)

Consider the following case:

On Twin Earth, a brain in a vat is at the wheel of a runaway trolley. There are only two options that the brain can take: the right side of the fork in the track or the left side of the fork. There is no way in sight of derailing or stopping the trolley and the brain is aware of this, for the brain knows trolleys. The brain is causally hooked up to the trolley such that the brain can determine the course which the trolley will take.

On the right side of the track there is a single railroad worker, Jones,who will definitely be killed if the brain steers the trolley to the right. If the railman on the right lives, he will go on to kill five men for the sake of killing them, but in doing so will inadvertently save the lives of thirty orphans (one of the five men he will kill is planning to destroy a bridge that the orphan's bus will be crossing later that night). One of the orphans that will be killed would have grown up to become a tyrant who would make good utilitarian men do bad things. Another of the orphans would grow up to become G.E.M. Anscombe, while a third would invent the pop-top can.

If the brain in the vat chooses the left side of the track, the trolley will definitely hit and kill a railman on the left side of the track, "Leftie" and will hit and destroy ten beating hearts on the track that could (and would) have been transplanted into ten patients in the local hospital that will die without donor hearts. These are the only hearts available, and the brain is aware of this, for the brain knows hearts. If the railman on the left side of the track lives, he too will kill five men, in fact the same five that the railman on the right would kill. However, "Leftie" will kill the five as an unintended consequence of saving ten men: he will inadvertently kill the five men rushing the ten hearts to the local hospital for transplantation. A further result of "Leftie's" act would be that the busload of orphans will be spared. Among the five men killed by "Leftie" are both the man responsible for putting the brain at the controls of the trolley, and the author of this example. If the ten hearts and "Leftie" are killed by the trolley, the ten prospective heart-transplant patients will die and their kidneys will be used to save the lives of twenty kidney-transplant patients, one of whom will grow up to cure cancer, and one of whom will grow up to be Hitler. There are other kidneys and dialysis machines available, however the brain does not know kidneys, and this is not a factor.

Assume that the brain's choice, whatever it turns out to be, will serve as an example to other brains-in-vats and so the effects of his decision will be amplified. Also assume that if the brain chooses the right side of the fork, an unjust war free of war crimes will ensue, while if the brain chooses the left fork, a just war fraught with war crimes will result. Furthermore, there is an intermittently active Cartesian demon deceiving the brain in such a manner that the brain is never sure if it is being deceived.

QUESTION: What should the brain do?

[ALTERNATIVE EXAMPLE: Same as above, except the brain has had a commisurotomy, and the left half of the brain is a consequentialist and the right side is an absolutist.]

Copyright, 1988 by the American Philosophical Association

Twin Earth--First used by Hilary Putnam in The Meaning of Meaning was an example in an argument for the claim that microscopic differences in macroscopically indistinguishable substances or objects would change the meanings of our words. In the article, Putnam argues that on Twin Earth what looks like water to us earthers is really composed of xyz, not H20. Thus, if we were transported to Twin Earth, all of our judgments about xyz would seem like true judgments about water to us, while they would, of course, be false judgments about xyz. This is a partly a response to Russellian Descriptivism and nomialism as an account of the meanings of our terms.

The Brain in the Vat--A modern, 1950's science-run-amok movie-style updating of Descartes's Demon. The Brain in the Vat scenario is a thought experiment designed to show the plausibility of radical skepticism. If we were merely Brains in Vats, hooked to computers which send the same sorts of electrical impulses that a normal body would have, we would have experiences indistinguishable from "real life" experiences with no hope of discovering our predicament. Thus, it is possible, according to those who find this example compelling, that radical skepticsm, the thesis that we have no certain knowledge, is true. The Brain in a Vat scenario was responded to by Hilary Putnam to promote his version of the argument for the claim that radical skepticism has to be false. He uses a version of the private language argument to argue that a brain in a vat would have no true beliefs. A brain in a vat which was causally hooked up to receive the same inputs it would have received if it had been in a body would, ex hypothesi the radical skeptic's theory, believe the same things we believe. But it would have no public referent for its words and sentences, and hence couldn't have any human language, since on Putnam's view, all languages require public referents. Thus, he argues that the skeptic who thinks all of our belief are (or could be) false has to suppose that we are like brains in vats. But since brains in vats could not have a language, and we do...

Knows--Judith Jarvis Thomson's article which revived the trolley problem, Killing, Letting Die and the Trolley Problem, has the word 'knows' italicized when she stipulates that the driver of the trolley has but two choices. He or she cannot derail or stop the trolley, Thomson writes, and the driver knows this because the driver knows trolleys. A feature I just obsessed about and overused to great comedic effect in the article, wouldn't you agree? The nonphilosophers who stole my piece didn't understand my inside joke, but had the presence of mind and enough exposure to mass media to pick up on the overuse of 'knows' and make a Bo Jackson joke. Ha ha ha. How subtle. Maybe we could slip in a McDonald's reference next time.

Jones--Jones is the standard name for the hapless "average person" in all philosphical examples since the days of those wild boys at Cambridge (Bertie Russell, G.E. Moore and Alfred North White-Westinghouse). Jones?  That's the most original thing they could come up with? Geez, a bunch of real creative geniuses, those guys...

G.E.M. Anscombe--Ms. Anscombe is a very famous British Moral Philosopher. You know, yesterday I saw a bumper sticker that read "The Moral Majority is Neither."  Clever, huh? I wonder why that just occurred to me...

Pop-top Cans--Aren't they neat?  Especially the new big mouth ones?  God, I love technology.

This bit of the example again owes much to Judith Jarvis Thomson's Killing, Letting Die and the Trolley Problem. She was the philosopher who came up with the analogous case called the transplant problem. In this problem, you have to decide whether you would sacrifice a person whose organs could be passed around to save the lives of five people about to die. As certain as most people are that they would steer the trolley onto the one person to save the five, they are even more sure that they should not sacrifice the one to save the five in the surgery case. This asymmetry in people's responses has spawned a huge effort to analyze what moral differences there are, if any, between the two cases. I think Jonathan Bennett settles this dispute in his Killing and Letting Die and his book Events and Their Names.

Unintended Consequences--Anyone familiar with the Catholic Church and their influence on Moral Philosophy will know that this is a reference to their Doctrine of Double Effect, the doctrine that it is permissible to do absolutely anything at all to anyone you want to so long as no one can make you stop. No wait! That's their Doctrine of Everyday Life. The Doctrine of Double Effect is the doctrine that an agent is not culpable for the unintended but foreseen consequences of morally permissible actions, even if these consequences are immoral or impermissible. This doctrine often comes up in discussions of the bombing of civilian targets during war. In other words, if any of what I have said on these pages offends you, that's too bad.  I didn't intend to offend you, but just to edify, so I'm in the clear!

Hitler--You're kidding, right?  You don't know who Hitler was? Look it up!

Just War Theory--St. Augustine was one of the first philosophers to spend a lot of time and mental energy arguing that there could be just wars, providing certain rather strict conditions were met. Other philosophers since his time have carried on the project and spent even more time thinking about which wars were just and which were not. Go figure.

Amplification of effect--Eventually, every utilitarian author worth his or her salt has to face some form of the desert island example. Opponents of utilitarianism never fail to point out that if a utilitarian were on a desert island with no possibility of ever being rescued or found out, almost any course of action would be permissible, given the right circumstances. I guess they watched too much "Gilligan's Island" growing up. Anyway, the argument is supposed to be that all forms of reprehensible behavior is kept in check, according to the utilitarian calculations, only because it would be bad (i.e., it would cause more unhappiness than pleasure) if the bad actions were discovered. On a desert island, the threat of discovery would be gone and we utilitarians would run wild like the kids in Lord of the Flies. Therefore, I built in to my account the claim that all other brains-in-vats would behave exactly as this brain did, to forestall the whining of anti-utilitarians. So there.

Cartesian Demon--A being imagined by Rene Descartes in his ultra-influential Meditations on First Philosophy. Descartes is interested in making sure all of his beliefs are worthy of belief, so he decides to suspend judgment on all beliefs about which he cannot be absolutely certain. To help him make sure he doesn't hold onto any doubtful beliefs, he theorizes that there is an omnipotent being whose main objective is to fool him about everything. Descartes decides that such a being could fool him into being mistaken about every belief save one--that he exists. This is the source of the famous dictum Cogito, ergo sum.

Commisurotomy--An operation (pay attention, this is exactly brain surgery we're talking about here) in which the neurons and connective tissue between the left and right hemispheres (or right and left, depending on which way you're facing) of the brain are cut, so that no direct communication occurs between the sides of the brain. This procedure was mainly performed upon people with epilepsy to lessen the severity of their seizures, but the results have started a nice little cottage industry for philosophers called Cognitive Science. The effects of the commisurotomy are rather astounding when explored, all the more so since they do not manifest themselves outside of laboratory conditions. One of the most amazing things you will discover when researching this topic is how likely people were to let doctors fool around with their brains in the 1950s and 60s. There must not have been enough lawyers back then. Two good sources for further reading are Charles Marks's fine book Commissurotomy, Consciousness and Unity of Mind, and Thomas Nagel's essay Brain Bisection and the Unity of Consciousness.

Consequentialist--A consequentialist is a moral theorist who thinks that the rightness or wrongness of an action depends on the consequences of the action, rather than the category the action falls under, the agent's intention, or any other feature of the action. Utilitarianism is a well known form of consequentialism (espoused by Bentham, Mill and others) according to which the amount of happiness an act produces is the relevant consequence.

Absolutist--An absolutist is a moral theorist who thinks that some actions are categorically right in such a way that they are never overridable. Immanuel Kant is a famous absolutist moralist (as is G.E.M. Anscombe) who famously thought it was never permissible to tell a lie, no matter how trivial, in order to acheive a good, no matter how great.

The History of an Idea The Trolley Problem